Behind each question on a standardized exam are researchers who painstakingly develop, analyze and assess every element of the test. To researchers and assessment advisors like Lydia Liu, Javarro Russell and Katrina Roohr, each question is a small brushstroke that paints a portrait of how well America’s higher education system is preparing students for the 21st century economy.
As Director of Higher Education Research at Educational Testing Service (ETS), Liu has dedicated her career to improving higher education and ensuring students are acquiring the skills that are vital to not only college but also lifelong learning. She leads higher education research projects at ETS, many of which have shaped the development of assessments. One such assessment is the HEIghten™ Outcomes Assessment Suite, which measures how well college students are developing skills like critical thinking, written communication and quantitative literacy.
“As the cost of higher education continues to increase, colleges and universities are increasingly being asked for more evidence of student learning,” Liu said. “Parents, policymakers and accreditation agencies want to make sure that students are developing the skills they need to succeed in the workforce — and this is where the HEIghten assessment can help.”
The ETS team designed the suite to enable colleges and universities to measure general education skills, benchmark and track institution performance, and identify areas for potential curriculum enhancement. In addition to the three core assessments for critical thinking, written communication and quantitative literacy, schools can pick and choose additional assessments to administer focused on civic competency and engagement, and intercultural competency and diversity. All of the assessments are designed to be used in conjunction with existing internal assessments to help administrators discover how well their students are advancing in these core areas compared to students at other schools.
For Russell, who serves as a Senior Assessment Strategist at ETS, the HEIghten assessment suite is unique because it assesses skills most students overlook. “When a college student is assigned a paper to write, they think they’re supposed to solely learn about the subject matter. In fact, the subject is not the only thing they will learn in the process,” Russell said. “The most important takeaways are the skills they develop researching, analyzing and effectively communicating their thesis. These are the skills that we are testing for with the HEIghten assessment.”
To ensure the assessments reflect the most up-to-date research, the ETS team conducted an extensive review of the most current frameworks of general education skills. During this process, ETS collaborated with college administrators and faculty to identify content that needed to be tested to ensure the assessments aligned with existing curricula.
While the next generation of students who take the HEIghten exam may never know the names of Liu, Russell or Roohr, these three ETSers know their work is making a difference. “The rigorous standard of assessment quality we adhere to makes this a challenging, but also a rewarding place to work,” Roohr said. “What keeps me going is knowing that we can make a real difference in improving how students learn.”